The Way We Weren’t in ’73

Rediscovered photos evoke stories from a 1973 tour of California aboard a Kawasaki Z-1. No GPS, fancy tank bags or waterproof riding gear.

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by Dain Gingerelli
I confidently survey the Bixby Creek Bridge on Highway One. This landmark was featured in the opening sequence to the 1970 television series "Then Came Bronson."

Now that I’m as old as my father was when I used to think that he was old, I’m even beginning to sound like my old man when he’d share sage advice with me. Moreover, now that I’m on the dole, so to speak, recouping some of my investments, so to speak, via monthly Social Security checks, I find myself perpetuating a tradition that probably has its origins when Adam told Cain to quit picking on his brother Abel.

So what do I have to say to young motorcyclists today? To paraphrase my old man: “Things were a lot different when I was your age.” That’s not an exaggeration, either, and Cain, put down that knife, you might hurt somebody.

I was recently reminded of how things have changed over the years for us bike people while sifting through my photo archives. Among the dog-eared manila envelopes were some long-lost black-and-white negatives of a motorcycle trip I took back in July 1973 aboard Kawasaki’s new Z-1. This was among the first touring trips taken by anyone on the Z-1, making it somewhat of a milestone adventure. (A group of Kawasaki test riders had taken some pre-production prototypes on a cross-country shakedown run prior to unveiling the bike in mid-1973.)

I chronicled my epic ride using my trusty Canon FTb camera, shooting Tri-X 35mm film to document places that the Kaw and I had been. We didn’t have digital cameras in those days, and in fact, the word “digital” was rather foreign to young bucks like me; occasionally old men used digital in conversation, most commonly as: “Well, sonny, I had my 50th birthday physical today and the doc gave me a digital rectal exam. The ol’ prostate got a thumbs up, it did.” But as a 24-year-old with other matters on my mind I just couldn’t put my finger on what they were talking about.

But back in ’73 I was a hot-shot motorcycle magazine editor in the thick of motorcycling, so I had my finger on the pulse of the industry, and I can tell you that our touring gear didn’t compare to what we have today. We didn’t have the fancy multi-compartment tail and tank bags, high output audio systems, flashy waterproof riding gear and flow-through ventilated jackets and helmets that we (young and old riders alike) enjoy today. No GPS, either. We used folding paper road maps that the gasoline companies handed out free to find our way to becoming lost over the horizon, and even the nomenclature for bikes was different back then. Sport touring bikes, adventure tourers, track-day bikes and naked bikes had yet to be developed; they were as distant to us as the words internet, Facebook and reality television.

My Z-1 tour actually had its origins two years before Kawasaki launched its landmark model. It began June 1971, to be precise. That’s when, fresh out of college, I hired on as Hot Bike magazine’s tech editor. The publisher worked our small staff like rented mules, and within two years I had been promoted (?) to the editor’s desk at Hot Bike‘s sister publication, Street Chopper. That meant even more work for me; I was in need of a vacation, so I borrowed one of the new 4-cylinder 900s from Kawasaki’s press pool to ride north to watch the second annual Laguna Seca National road race. Dark and early Friday morning I met my friend Tyson and his girlfriend (and now wife) Kathy and another couple for the ride to Monterey, California. Tyson and his friend rode Honda 750s, so they were naturally curious about the Z-1. I gave them a few minutes to examine the bike before we saddled up.

Packing for rides was easy back then. I simply rolled a spare pair of jeans and some T-shirts into my sleeping bag, stuffed that into an old raincoat to help keep it dry if I encountered rain, and then strapped the lot onto the rear seat. The gaggle of bungee cords looked like spaghetti, but it worked. I strapped my camera bag directly behind me, so it doubled as a backrest. To help protect my camera from dishonest Charlies’ sticky fingers when I stopped for food and such during the day I strategically placed my skivvies and socks inside the bag directly over the coveted camera gear. We lacked sophisticated anti-theft devices back in the day, so I figured if somebody really wanted to steal my camera gear, they’d have to deal with my BVDs first. The camera was never stolen from the bike, so who’s to say that my anti-theft tactics didn’t work?

Our pilgrimage to Laguna Seca followed the sacred path of Highway One north, a road I had traversed several times before on my 1970 Honda CB350 and later my 1963 Porsche 356B, so I was rather familiar with its curves. I wish I could report that I rode the Z-1 at a sedate and friendly speed, but I can’t, and I dispatched more than a few bikes during the ride. Among them were a small pack of riders on /5 BMWs that had been given the café racer treatment, several Honda 750s and Kawasaki Mach III super-wobblers, and a Norton Commando, which surprised me. No doubt the only roll that bloke was packing was a money roll.

Regardless of the other riders’ skill levels, the Z-1 impressed me at how nimble it was for such a big bike. If I maintained a steady cornering speed I could use the bike’s superior acceleration after standing it up on the exit to pass the bike in front of me. Even so, I managed to scrape quite a bit of the Z-1’s hardware through the turns that morning.

Years later, while researching a story about early Superbike racing, I interviewed two-time champion Wes Cooley, who began his career riding Yoshimura-Kawasakis. Wes told me: “You come into the turn, square the corner, then accelerate out — hard.” And should you miss the turn’s apex on the big and fast Z-1? Simple: “You make up for it just by gassing it,” Cooley explained cooly. Those early inline fours were that powerful when compared to the BMW and Ducati twins that also populated the AMA grids.

So I continued gassing the Z-1’s powerful engine out of Highway One’s many turns until we arrived at the track before lunch, in time to watch a Pops Yoshimura-prepared Kawasaki Z-1 win the Superbike Production (forerunner to today’s Superbike class). We observed most of the racing from the hill overlooking what was Turn 7 (now Rainey’s Corner, Turn 9) while we basked under the soft sunshine. Pops’ rider was Yvon Duhamel, who was pops to a future road racing legend, Miguel Duhamel.

There were no camping facilities at the track in 1973, but the management reserved the infield for tents and such for campers. Tyson and his posse pitched camp there, but I met some of my friends from the AFM (American Federation of Motorcyclists) on Laureles Grade Road just outside the track, and while we discussed where in the heck we were going to make camp for the night, my friend Fred Walti, who was perhaps the fastest of the bunch on a racetrack, asked to ride the Z-1. (Fast Fred was the person who gave me my “Daingerous Dain” moniker, but that’s a story for another time.) The ride was Fred’s first experience on the new bike, and within a year he was racing a Z-1 prepared by Ron Scrima in the Superbike Production class. They competed under the Exhibition Engineering banner, and as I recall they enjoyed a odium finish or two, but no wins.

After Gary Nixon won the main event on Sunday, I rode solo to San Francisco where I’d bunk at an old college buddy’s apartment, but before I even made it out of the racetrack’s congested parking lot a guy and his girlfriend on a Honda 750 pulled me aside for a closer look at the new Kawasaki. She was a rather cute blonde, so I didn’t mind, and soon enough they invited me to dinner at their apartment that was somewhere near Hollister. After dinner I carried on to Ian’s place in San Francisco, and the next morning he snapped a few riding shots of me in the city before I headed east on Interstate 80 to visit the famous Harrah’s Auto Collection near Reno, Nevada.

The ride was tediously boring until the multi-lane interstate began its climb into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Long sweepers suited the big Z-1, and again the engine’s power kept me ahead of any traffic. I stopped for a photo op at Donner Pass, and curiously at about that same time hunger pangs gripped me. Later I ate at a roadside joint that’s probably no longer there, saw way more cars than I cared to see in the Harrah’s collection, and rode back up the mountain to Lake Tahoe where I snuck into a closed campground for the night. I made a mattress of pine needles, crawled into my sleeping bag and gazed at the stars overhead. Moments like that help you appreciate who our Creator is, and soon enough I was out like a light.

I’ve always been a fan of the Old West, so a visit to Virginia City was next on my mini bucket list. The Cartwright family’s old haunt in the television show Bonanza turned out to be a major tourist attraction, and no doubt Ben, Adam (no relation to Adam the First), Hoss and Little Joe would be disappointed, as was I so I didn’t stay long, hitting the road south, taking Highway 395 home. The ride from Carson City, Nevada, to Mammoth Lakes, California, included some interesting curves, allowing me to swoop left and right aboard the big 545-pound bike. Seven years later I’d take this same route home aboard a 1980 Suzuki GS1100E, when I missed hitting a coyote by inches that had sprinted in front of me just north of Bridgeport, California.

By now I was adjusting the big Kawasaki’s drive chain every day. O-ring chain technology was still in its infancy in 1973, and despite the 640 chain’s massive links, the 4-cylinder engine continued to stretch it after only three or four hundred miles of riding. The routine was to adjust the chain and lubricate it at the end of each day, and that’s what I did in the motel parking lot in Bishop when I noticed a peculiar odor. I passed it off as something from the locals, but the next morning it returned after the Z-1’s engine reached operating temperature. Was it a cracked battery? Eager to get home, I didn’t stop to investigate, and charged out of Bishop. Ah, the folly of youth.

About 10 miles out of town I heard a loud pop, almost like an explosion, and the exhaust noise grew more intense. This happened three more times, and it was on the second pop that I stopped to examine the pipes. The baffles had blown out of two mufflers, and within a few more miles all four pipes were breathing freely. The baffles’ spot welds had come loose.

Let me sidebar here for a moment: Initially I figured the welds were simply inferior and that Kawasaki engineers would improve their production procedure — end of story. For years I lived with that scenario, but only when I began writing this article did I conclude on another possible reason, one that could have involved some engine tampering by someone at Kawasaki.

Back in the 1970s, Kawasaki contracted a guy named Jack Murphy to prep some of the bikes that were loaned to the magazines for road tests. I knew Jack personally, and I visited him a few times at his home in Azusa where he’d show me modified 2-stroke cylinders (Mach III and IV) that he tinkered with; a hot-shot drag racer named Tony Nicosia campaigned Jack’s triples and set some blistering times in the process.

I was road racing 2-stroke bikes back in those days and Jack knew I was interested in this kind of stuff. He was one gifted engine builder and tuner, and there had been suspicions among people in the industry that some of the parts that he put back into the road-test bikes’ engines were — shall we say — suspect. Looking back now, I wonder if ol’ Jack didn’t just tamper with those little ol’ baffles, and his welds couldn’t hold up to the beating that ol’ Daingerous Dain gave the bike. Then as now, I can only surmise that to be the case because I left the evidence sprinkled up and down ighway 395. Like I stated in the beginning, things were different back in my day.

And so, with the Kaw making a thunderous noise across the hot Mojave Desert, I forged onward, the exhaust sounding more like that of Yvon Duhamel’s winning bike than a stocker. Then the exhaust noise got quieter. In fact, it got half quieter because the engine quit running on two cylinders. Faulty coils, perhaps? Didn’t matter, I was committed because, other than a bunch of lazy desert tortoises, scraggy sage brush and sun-bleached rocks, there was only two-lane blacktop between Kramer Junction and me.

Onward I rode, managing only about 55mph indicating on the speedometer. I wondered if the bike would make it. As I crested the final hill overlooking Kramer Junction the engine quit firing altogether, and I coasted down as far as that big bike would roll under the power of gravity. I ended up pushing that big Kaw about a mile or so to the finish, where I parked it in front of the hamburger stand along the road. I called the guys at the office in Orange County (no cellphones back then, either, but I did have a telephone credit card that circumvented the need for a pocketful of coins) and one of them hopped in the company van to retrieve me.

I didn’t officially finish the lap around California, but those few days probably answered several questions about the Z-1’s reliability for Kawasaki’s engineers. No doubt, they focused on the bike’s electrical system, and maybe the battery box. And chances are they taught ol’ Jack a thing or two about how to make better and stronger spot welds to mufflers. MC

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